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Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal

Author(s): Laura J. Miller

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Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1995), pp. 393-418
Published by: Springer
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SociologicalForum,Vol. 10, No. 3, 1995

Family Togetherness and the Suburban Ideal

Laura J. Miller1

An examination of the history of suburbanizationin the United States shows

that the suburban ideal has, from its beginnings,been associated with a vision
of family togetherness, meaning that husband, wife, and children choose to
spend their leisure time with one another. While the migration to the suburbs
has been in part fueled by a desire to escape the mix of classes and ethnic
groups of urban areas, and by government- and market-shaped economic
incentives, the suburban ideal has stressed finding an environment in which
family ties can be strengthened. The social and spatial structure of suburbia
promotes familial isolation through a lack of public space and through an
emphasis on home maintenance and home-centered entertainments. It is
argued that by providing such optimal conditions for togetherness,suburbia
may actually underminefamilial harmony by exacerbatingthe strain of trying
to live up to an essentially unattainable ideal.


Americans are well accustomed to hearing the press, policymakers,

and advocacy groups issue warnings about the state of the family, voicing
concerns that the strength of this institution said to be at the foundation
of the nation's moral fiber and social stability is endangered. Those who
agree that the contemporary family is buffeted by forces threatening to tear
it apart anxiously search for the best environment to shelter and nurture
the life inside the home. And so reports sound especially alarmed by the
decline of intact families in the suburbs (Patner, 1990) or the increase in
suburban domestic homicides (Bates and Duggan, 1992) because suburbia

1Departmentof Sociology 0102, Universityof CaliforniaSan Diego, La Jolla, California


0884-8971/95/0900-0393$07.50/0 ? 1995 Plenum Publishing Corporation

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394 Miller

has long been thought to be the most promising place for the family to
flourish. Indeed, the very rise of the suburbs in the early 19th century was
closely connected to a new preoccupation with domesticity, one that arose
out of changes in the family that transformed it from a center of economic
activity to a unit that emphasized raising children and providing affection
to its members. At the same time as the family was being redefined as a
source of companionship and emotional sustenance, the suburbs began to
be seen as the ideal location for it.
In this paper, I show how the suburban ideal has, from its beginnings,
been associated with a particular vision of family life. This vision regards
the family not only as a domestic alliance that creates a household to take
care of its members' basic needs for food and shelter, but also as a group
of people who enjoy one another's company and share leisure pursuits. This
is a vision of family togetherness,2 meaning that husband, wife, and children
choose to spend the time not claimed by wage labor or school with one
another, preferring each other's company to the competing attractions of
the outside world.
It is partially in order to realize this image of cozy family life that so
many have turned to suburbia.3By 1990, 46.2% of the U.S. population was
living in the suburbs. This compared to 31.3% living in central cities, and
22.5% in nonmetropolitan areas (based on United States Bureau of the
Census, 1993:1). The move to the suburbs, which originally was a white
middle-class phenomenon but now includes a much wider range of the
population, probably always was and still is largely motivated by a desire
to escape the mix of classes and racial and ethnic groups that characterize
urban areas. This migration has also been fueled by government- and mar-
ket-shaped economic incentives that make suburban property not only af-
fordable to large numbers of people, but among the most wise investments
individuals can make. However, the meaning of suburban life for its resi-

2The term "togetherness"was not coined until 1954 by the publishersof McCall'smagazine
(Friedan, 1963/1983:48).Nevertheless,the ideas behind it can still be applied (while
acknowledgingvariationsin emphasisand intensity)to an earlierera.
3Socialscientistsand urbanplannershave not agreedupon any definitionof suburbia,but it
is useful to thinkof it as both a geographicand socialenvironment.The suburbis generally
characterizedby proximityto a large city (along with a close economic relationship)and
low-densityhousing.Yet as Jacksonsays,suburbiais also a "stateof mind"(1985:4),and so
bringswith it certainexpectationsabout a family-centered way of life. Part of the problem
in definingsuburbiais that the prevailingformsof urbanspace are changing.Some analysts
even argue that the suburbhas been eclipsed. Instead, they speak of the "technoburb"
(Fishman,1987), "exopolis"(Soja, 1992),or Edge City (Garreau,1991), neithersuburbnor
city, but an altogetherdifferentkind of decentralizedenvironmentcontainingjobs, services,
and housing. While I agree that it is importantto recognize the transformationof the
traditionalcity-suburbrelationship,I do not think it is necessaryto posit an entirelynew
urbanentity.The city-suburbdistinctionis still a useful one. For an extendeddiscussionof
this issue, see the symposiumon suburbiain AmericanQuarterly 46(1), March1994.

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FamilyTogetherness 395

dents is not purely one of racismor risingpropertyvalues. The suburban

ideal is about finding a homogenous communityof like-mindedpeople,
about livingin a home that providescomfortand diversion,and quite cen-
trally, about finding an environmentin which familyties can be strength-
This valuationof suburbiafor a particularform of familylife has thus
providedsome of the primaryideologicalunderpinningsfor the exclusion-
ary actions of individualsmoving to suburbia,as well as for the various
governmentpolicies and business strategiesthat have built suburbia.But
the suburbanideal also demonstratesits powerthroughthe simplefact that
it continues to persist, even when its vision of family togethernessis so
difficultto realize.
There is little doubt that, in manyways, the social and spatial struc-
ture of suburbiadoes promote family togetherness.In large part, this is
because the geographyof suburbiamakesit relativelydifficult,duringnon-
work hours,to associatewith people who are not membersof one's house-
hold. In most suburbs,there is a decided lack of publicspaces-sidewalks,
squares,taverns,centralshoppingdistricts,etc.-where nonfamilymembers
habituallygather.And as the phrase"suburbansprawl"implies,the suburb
is so decentralizedthat an automobiletrip is necessaryfor most visitingor
other tasks that mightbringone in contactwith others.Equallyimportant,
suburbiapresentspeople with comfortablehousesthat keep their occupants
home boundby offeringa wide varietyof entertainmentsand by demanding
Nevertheless,I want to suggest that the suburbanideal of familyto-
gethernessmay, in some fundamentalsense, still be highlyelusive. By pro-
viding such optimal conditionsfor togetherness,these structuralfeatures
of suburbiamay actuallybe exacerbatingthe strainof tryingto live up to
an ideal that is essentiallyunattainable.Aries claimsthatwhen urbanforms
of social intercoursedeclined, the familyexpandedits role in order to try
to fulfill the individual'ssocial needs and leisure time (1977:234-235).But
as he and others have argued,this is simplytoo great a responsibilityfor
the familyto bear. Familymembers,who to a large degree have different
experiencesand concerns,may not particularlylike doing thingswith one
another in isolation.Public spaces can then actuallyprovidethe company
that makes being with family easier. But suburbanization,by eliminating
the spaces in which differentage groupsand both genderscongregate,has
done awaywith the sites for socializingthat defuse the claustrophobiaof
family togetherness.
Since the 1950s,both historiansand sociologistshave debatedthe re-
lationshipbetween suburbanizationand domesticity.But for the most part,
even when decryingthe isolatingtendenciesof the suburbs,these scholars

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396 Miller

rarely make problematic the very ideal of family life contained in the sub-
urban dream. On the other hand, those critics who do suggest that the
family shoulders too much responsibility for its members' well-being and
happiness have rarely looked at how social and geographic environments
contribute to this problem.
Because it is an environment formed to a large degree in order to
encourage family interaction, suburbia is especially useful for highlighting
the meanings and incongruities attached to the notion of togetherness. My
intention, therefore, is to look at the connections between suburbia and
family togetherness, first, through an examination of the history of the sub-
urban ideal, and second, through an analysis of how that ideal fits with the
suburb's spatial and segregatory features. In the process, I will challenge
two assumptions that have long been central to the family-suburbia con-
nection: that public sociability is incompatible with familial sociability, and
that family togetherness is identical to family harmony.


Beginning in England in the late 18th century, wealthy, formerly ur-

ban families began to establish their primary residences in the countryside
on the outskirts of large cities (Fishman, 1987). Similar developments were
seen in the United States, in Boston and New York, starting in the second
decade of the 19th century (Binford, 1985; Jackson, 1985), and becoming
a full-blown movement by midcentury. These suburbs, in which affluent
families could live in a restorative, semirural environment while their men
commuted to jobs in the city, were a thoroughly novel form of living ar-
rangement for people who had long assumed that the most desirable loca-
tion was in the heart of the densely packed city. But this alternative to
urban life could not have happened until major shifts within the institution
of the family had occurred. It was only with the separation of the workplace
from the place of residence, and the corresponding separation of men's
and women's spheres, that the possibility of removing the home far from
a man's place of business became thinkable. Furthermore, it was not until
these developments took place that the family could begin to conceive of
its most meaningful time together as those hours spent away from work.
The ideal of domesticity that glorified intimate family relations and
spawned the notion of togetherness did not in itself cause suburbanization.
But the two phenomena did start to develop around the same time, and
were mutually reinforcing influences upon one another.
The suburban ideal encompasses a view about the morally and physi-
cally healthful influences of rural living, and a concomitant view of the city

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Family Togetherness 397

as sinful and providing temptations that can lure individuals away from fa-
milial pursuits. Connected to this is a strong desire to escape the "danger-
ous" classes and races that are almost unavoidable in city living. Those
participating in suburbanization anticipate a home-centered lifestyle, with
parents and children finding gratification in homemaking as well as both
indoor and outdoor activities that involve the whole family.
The American vision of ideal family life in the suburbs has not, of
course, remained static over time. Rather, it intensified and grew more
widely accepted since its origins, perhaps reaching its height during the
1950s. Still, this ideal persists today. What has remained consistent over
time is a valuation of private life, centered on the family, over all forms
of public intercourse.

The Early Suburbs

According to Fishman, the earliest form of the modern suburb was

seen in London in the 1790s. He claims that this novel move by a small
group of the bourgeoisie was in large part fueled by a new conception of
the middle-class family based on the companionate marriage and emotional
intimacy. The traditional urban household, with its poor separation between
public and private space, and the nearby presence of theaters, public gar-
dens, cafes, and street life to entice family members away from home, was
not conducive to nurturing domestic intimacy (1987:30, 34). Thus, the mid-
dle class looked to create a new environment where families could limit
the intrusiveness of urban life.
However, relocating to the suburbs was not the only option available.
Fishman points out that this move by the English was essentially anoma-
lous; most other European bourgeois found urban solutions. For instance,
when the French urbanites developed their notion of domesticity, they
carved out a new purely residential district within Paris that allowed for
class segregation (1987:109). What was key to the English experience, Fish-
man argues, was the tradition of Evangelicalism. The Evangelicals not only
were leaders in the new vision of the family, but were especially concerned
with the dangers the city posed to family life. They prohibited their fol-
lowers from indulging in all urban amusements, and found the constant
presence of business associates, apprentices, lodgers, and other nonfamily
members disruptive to the intimacy and serenity of the household. Further-
more, the Evangelicals encouraged an aversion to the city by stressing the
separation of male and female spheres. Women, who in particular needed
protection from the evils of the city, were to restrict themselves to the

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398 Miller

home, giving religiousand emotional supportto their husbandsand chil-

dren (1987:36).4
Similarto the Englishexperience,the growinginterestin the suburbs
by mid-19th centuryAmericanswas also accompaniedby an emphasison
creating a moral and shelteringhome. The various accountsof the early
suburbanmovementshow a preoccupationwith achievinga particularideal
of family life-one that emphasizedthe family'sabilityto offer gratifica-
tions previouslysought in more public or communalsettings.Despite the
19th centurystress on male and female difference,the familywas seen as
a moral unity and the center of its members'existence. The home, not
public places, was where good Christianmen and women should choose
to spend their time and find satisfactionand meaning(Jeffrey,1972:22).
While not limitedto suburbanarchitecture,it is notablethat midcen-
tury American houses emphasizedto a greaterextent than ever before the
separation familyspace from public space. Instead of rooms with mul-
tiple purposesthat were open to familymembersand guests alike, the mid-
dle-classhome now includeda hall and formalfront parlorwhere visitors
could be greeted, while the family'squarterswere unseen upstairsand in
the back of the house. The primacyof detached homes, and the use of
lawns,whichweretrademarksof the suburbanstyle (Jackson,1985:56)also
representedways to separate the home from the rest of the world. This
sentimentis summedup by FrederickLaw Olmsted,the landscapearchitect
and one of the principlefiguresin Americansuburbanization, who wrote,
in 1869,
In the present shape of civilizationpeople are not in a healthyway who do not
wantto makethe line betweentheirown familiesand familybelongingsand others,
a rathersharp-at least a well-definedone. (Fishman,1987:130)

The suburbanideal was alwaysand explicitlyabout guardingagainst the

encroachmentof nonfamilymembers.
The move to the suburbswas, therefore,in some ways simplyan ex-
tension of the retreatfrom the "world"that the home symbolized.But the
"world"was also very much one definedby class and ethnicity.The middle
class'visionsof a gracefulhome life were closelyweddedto effortsto sepa-
rate and distinguishthemselvesfrom the riffraffleft in the city. The cities
4While Fishman'saccount of the ideologicalunderpinningsof the early Anglo-American
suburbanmovementis generallyquite persuasive,his attemptto grantso muchindependent
weight to the ideology of domesticityis problematic.He asserts that the new kind of
middle-classfamily,centeredon emotionalties, was responsiblefor the separationof the
home fromthe place of work.However,manyhistoriansturnthis equationaround,claiming
that the separationof home and workplaceled to the new ideology of domesticity(e.g.,
Hareven,1986:46;Matthaei,1982:106).Therefore,suburbanization could not have happened
until there was alreadyan acceptanceof the split betweenwork and residence.

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FamilyTogetherness 399

were not only crowded,dirty,noisy, and populatedby the poor and immi-
grants,but they were also filled with the temptationsof saloons, gambling
dens, dance halls, and other amusementsconsideredimmoralto the proper
19th-centurywhite, middle-classChristian.While the family could try to
establishan enclave of moralityand repose amid the dangerouscity, min-
isters and domestic advocatesagreed that a ruralsetting offered the best
hope.5Naturewas seen as a source of truthand beauty,as well as encour-
aging a quiet, peaceful life. By the latter half of the 19th century,houses
themselveshad become integratedwith nature. Not only did a semirural
setting help reach this end, but designerspromotedporches,bay windows,
and earth colors for the home (Clark,1986:17,24).
The residentialsuburbwas thus seen by many as the perfect innova-
tion. It encouragedcontinuouscontactwith godly natureand shelteredthe
familyfrom the evils of the city, yet still allowedthe familyto take advan-
tage of urban economic opportunitiesand the urban amenities available
for the home. In severalrespects,then, the suburbanway of life epitomized
middle-classVictorianconceptionsof domesticity.This lifestylegrew even
more popular by the turn of the century as city life became ever more

From the Turn of the Century to the Postwar Era: The Move from
Morality to Fulfillment

Historiansof the suburbsagree that the Americandomesticideal be-

gan to change around the 1870s. Instead of an emphasison creating the
moral home, there was a move towardimprovingthe qualityof life (Clark,
1986:104).Includedin this changewas a relaxingof the separationof male
and female spheres,and a greaterstress on the notion of familytogether-
ness. In the earlierperiod, the attentionpaid to differencesbetween men,
women, and childrenled to some segregationof interestsand activities.By
5Thisinterpretationof the suburbanmovementhas been challengedby Marsh(1988, 1989,
1990), who claims that the suburbanideal and the ideology of domesticityin the United
States were not originallypart of the same belief system.She suggeststhat in the mid-19th
century,the suburbanideal takingshapewas male defined,stressingthe connectionsbetween
livingin a ruralsetting,propertyownership,and the preservationof democracy.Marshclaims
that the city, in contrast,was thoughtto presentthe best opportunitiesfor a female-centered
domesticity.However,while it is true that manymiddle-classwomen hoped to extend their
influenceto the sinful city (see Stansell,1987), this does not mean that they regardedthe
city as offeringthe best environmentto realize their domesticvision. Furthermore,Marsh
understatesthe mid-19thcenturyimportanceof domesticityfor men.Menwho venturedforth
every day into the harshworld needed a moral home to returnto that would redeem and
soothe them. Still, Marshraises interestingquestionsabout the divergentinterestsof men
and women regardingthe move to the suburbs,and this is a topic that deserves further

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400 Miller

the turn of the century, husband, wife, and child were redefined as sharing
more interests, particularly recreational ones.
During this period, there also began to be a flood of periodical arti-
cles, stories, and books that advocated the good life in the suburbs (Stilgoe,
1988:168). As before, publicists were portraying the suburbs as the best
locale for a family-centered lifestyle, but the features they chose to fore-
ground had changed somewhat. Along with a continued preoccupation with
independence from outside interference, the suburban ideal now empha-
sized recreation and affectionate family relationships (Clark, 1986:99). This
was joined to a heightened interest in consumerism, nurtured by a growing
advertising industry, which raised new opportunities for familial expression
(Braden, 1992:146; Clark, 1986:140; Spigel, 1992:19).
Changes in domestic architecture again highlighted the new ideals.
The first major modification in floor plans in nearly 150 years occurred in
the 1890s as entrance halls and front and back parlors were eliminated in
favor of a multipurpose living room (Clark, 1986:132). That single room
was not only practical in terms of the smaller houses being built, but it
demonstrated a greater willingness to expose family life to the view of
guests. Furthermore, the centrality of the living room signaled the family's
intent to spend more time in one another's company. Even larger homes
did away with the extra rooms that had previously been the designated
retreats of husband, wife, or children (Fishman, 1987:150).
The stress on family togetherness perhaps came across best in new
ideas about appropriate recreation. While reading aloud, playing games, and
talking were central home activities, there was a surge in enthusiasm for the
outdoor amusements that suburban living made so accessible. Lawns were
put to use for croquet and archery, and the scenic suburban landscapes be-
came settings for roller skating and bicycling by the whole family. Suburbs
also created golf and tennis clubs, as well as other types of cultural and
social clubs that involved both husbands and wives (Marsh, 1988:178-179).
Even though the image of life in the suburbs had switched from one
of moral redemption to opportunities for fulfillment in the context of family
life, a fear of the immoral city continued to be a primary concern. Such
fears were often put in terms of how difficult it was for the urban family
to thrive. For instance, Marsh reports that at a 1909 American Sociological
Association meeting, "a number of the participants warned explicitly that
city life and family togetherness had become contradictory" (1988:178).
While these expressions reflected concerns about urban-inspired competi-
tiveness and individualism, the preoccupations of middle-class residents still
focused on urban diversity. These families not only continued to worry
about European immigrants, but also about the migration of Southern
blacks into Northern cities (Jackson, 1985:150).

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Family Togetherness 401

Those families hoping to leave the city were aided by the railroads,
which had opened up large tracts of land that speculatorsand developers
seized on for their suburbanization potential.Even more people were able
to consider this lifestyle by the 1920s,when an enormousamount of sub-
urban constructiontook place, spurred by the rising wages of potential
homeownersand the impact of the automobile(Jackson,1985:175).How-
ever, the suburbanboom was interruptedby the Depression and World
WarII. During this period, new constructioncame to an almost total halt.
After the end of the war,pent-updemandfor housing,combinedwith
governmentpolicies regardinghome construction,mortgages,and highway
building,led to a flood of families movingto the suburbs.The suburban
ideal becamethe hope of unprecedentednumbersof Americansas the pos-
sibilityof owninga home became availableto even working-classfamilies.
Furthermore,beliefs about domesticity,familytogetherness,and life in the
suburbsbecame more tightlyintertwinedthan ever before. As May states,
The legendary family of the 1950s, complete with appliances, station wagon,
backyardbarbecues,and tricyclesscatteredon the sidewalks,represented. . . the
firstwholeheartedeffortto createa homethatwouldfulfillvirtuallyall its members'
personalneeds throughan energizedand expressivepersonallife. (1988:11)

Severalthemes of previousgenerationswere repeatedin exaggeratedform.

This includedthe valuationof the home over public spaces, the desire to
incorporatethe outdoorsinto one's lifestyle,an enthusiasmfor consumer-
ism, and perhapsmost prominently,a vision of the familyengaged in rec-
reationalactivitiesand generallyhavingfun together.
Once again, shiftingstyles in architectureprovidea good measureof
the directionin whichthe ideal had gone. The belief in the soothingeffects
of contemplatingnaturewas reinforcedby the ranch house's single story,
and its use of picturewindows,slidingglass doors, and patios that brought
nature right into the living space (Clark,1989:178).The divisionbetween
public and privatespace in generalremainedstrong,buttressedby the om-
nipresentlawn.6And the dominanceof the kitchenand familyroom dem-
onstratedthe concernwith togetherness.This becomesmost apparentwhen
contrastedto the Victorianhome, which had a multiplicityof rooms (with
doors that could shut othersout), each with a well-definedrole, and usually
the domainof a particularfamilymember(Clark,1986:40).A centurylater,
the numberof rooms had diminished,the walls betweenkitchenand family
room were lowered,and these two spaceswere transformedinto multipur-
pose rooms, appropriatefor playing, socializing,eating, and housework.
With this arrangement, not only could mother watch her kids as she
6Riesman(1958:398)likens the front yard to the "parlor,"and the backyardto the "family

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402 Miller

worked, but children had greater rights to more areas of the house-the
most important spaces belonged to all (Clark, 1989:179-180).

The Ideal Persists

The heightened rhetoric of family togetherness, as well as the domes-

tic optimism of the 1950s, have certainly died down as people have become
more aware of the breakups and pathologies that strike so many families.
But while "togetherness" as a term has perhaps been discredited, there is
still a strong sense that the sentiment behind it is a noble goal, and that
suburbia offers the best chance to reclaim the spirit of togetherness. Sub-
urban living is thought to hold the possibility of shielding children from
urban drugs and urban-inspired nihilism, and of reminding adults that do-
mestic "values" are the ones that really matter the most to them.
Although little research has been done on the contemporary suburban
ideal, there are indications that older themes persist. Clearly, the suburban
lifestyle continues to figure prominently in people's aspirations. A 1992 sur-
vey conducted for the Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae)
found that 80% of Americans identified the "traditional single-family de-
tached home with a yard as the ideal place to live," and four-fifths said
"they would rather own a home some distance from work than rent within
easy commuting distance" (New York Times, 1992). Scholars have found
that people settling in the suburbs are more likely to be families with chil-
dren and those who express child-centered concerns, such as the desire for
large yards, good schools, and safe environments (England, 1993; Varady,
1990). These studies show a definite orientation to family life when making
the decision to go suburban.
Further evidence for how this ideal has persisted and evolved can be
seen in the appeals made to prospective suburban home buyers. An analysis
of real estate advertisements between 1960 and 1990 shows a continuing
preoccupation with the access to nature and recreational opportunities of-
fered by suburbia, as well as hints about the unwholesome environment of
the city.7 Boasting of houses that provide comfort and privacy, such adver-

71 analyzedthe weeklyreal estate section of the San Diego Unionfor every second Sunday
in Maybetween1960 and 1990.These yearssaw tremendousdevelopmentin the San Diego
region, especiallyin the outlyingareas to the north and east. Of course, as a prototypical
sunbeltmetropolis,San Diego is often characterizedas being all suburbwith no city center.
But such a characterizationoverlookspatternsof developmentthat have placedmost newer
residentialneighborhoodsawayfromcommercialand industrialareas,awayfromolder,more
denselypopulated,and more heterogenousneighborhoods,and often beyondthe city limits.
As I will show, these ads make quite explicita divisionbetween "in town"where the jobs
and most servicesare, and outlyingsuburbswhere people live and play.

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Family Togetherness 403

tisements stress the physical and mental distance between home and the
public realm. And these ads are clearly speaking to families-even as the
demographics of the suburbs change to include more households without
Certainly the features most touted in these advertisements (the ma-
jority of which are promoting homes in "master-planned communities") are
the houses' luxury and affordability. But along with this, the use of pictures
and text conjure up a fuller image of life in the suburbs-one that is in-
tended to resonate with the desires of readers. While in some years it is
much more pronounced than in others, the image of these suburbs as being
the ideal locations for families is one that endures: "Dorado. A community
of family values," announces the headline of one ad (San Diego Union,
May 14, 1989:F18). These family-friendly developments are often counter-
poised to a menacing and troubled world that lies just down the freeway.
Another ad begins, "More and more thinking-ahead families are forsaking
concrete jungles for the friendly slopes of Vallecitos" (San Diego Union,
May 14, 1972:F14). In contrast to the advertisements for houses and con-
dominiums "in town," which stress the convenience of being near shopping,
cultural facilities, and the absence of a commute to work, ads for suburban
areas present these sites as domestic refuges, even as they play down the
commute suburban living necessitates. "What kind of person would want
to drive an extra half hour a day?," asks a headline:
Only one kind!The kindwho feels that the qualityof familylife is more important
than sheer quantity.And the kindwho feels that an extrahalf houron the highway
is a small price to pay for the privacyand safety of a privatecommunity,crystal
clear skies, over 300 days of sunshine,and the assuranceof an uncrowdedfuture
for you and your children.(San Diego Union,May 9, 1976:F7)

These ads tell the reader what a relief it would be to escape the "hus-
tle and bustle," "noise," and "push and shove" of the city. But not only
do cities apparently offer too much excitement, they also offer unpre-
dictable and unwelcome neighbors. These two themes come together in the
stress on privacy in these ads. On the one hand, privacy appears to be a
code word signaling the suburb's distance from urban crime and other bad
elements. "Country private. Country safe" (San Diego Union, May 9,
1982:F26). "A village-like atmosphere. . . . The ultimate in security and
seclusion" (San Diego Union, May 9, 1976:F3). Privacy also extends to the
now common practice of restricting neighborhood facilities to residents,
thus assuring that encounters with different kinds of people are minimized.
"Designed for family fun!. . . Starlight's delightful park is NOT public! It
belongs to the 116 lucky families that buy a home here. It's YOURS! YOU
own it!" (San Diego Union, May 9, 1965:F14). On the other hand, privacy
is valued for its own sake. These ads assume that one of the best-selling

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404 Miller

points of the suburbs is that they offer families the opportunity to be left
alone. "Our best feature is that nobody can find us up here," proclaims
one ad (San Diego Union, May 11, 1981:F10). The separation between
home and the outside world is firmly in place.
Related to this is a ubiquitous emphasis on country living and the
healthful effects of residing amid tranquil nature. Oddly enough, the term
"suburb" is rarely used in these ads. Rather, they attempt to transform
what are, after all, massive real estate developments into an image of open
sky, fresh air, and undisturbed nature. Indeed, these "open spaces" are very
often "landscaped," belying their supposedly natural settings. Nevertheless,
the notion of living in the country, with its "genuine family atmosphere
where nature sets the pace" (San Diego Union, May 14, 1989:F16), remains.
One of the advertised benefits of living in "the country" is the en-
hanced recreational opportunities available there. As one ad with the head-
line "City Close, Country Quiet" puts it, "EastLake is a place where family
values are still treasured. Where a neighbor is a friend. Where recreation
abounds-swimming, sailing, fishing, biking, jogging, tennis . . . it's all
here" (San Diego Union, May 11, 1986:F17). Family values are thus asso-
ciated with, and appear to be bolstered by caring neighbors and outdoor
activities. In fact, so prominent are listings of available leisure facilities that
the image of suburban life presented in these ads is one of carefree and
healthy fun for families who apparently have little more to do than swim,
hike, and golf together.
Togetherness is therefore an implied virtue of moving to these devel-
opments. However, these ads are not stressing an unrelieved togetherness.
Rather, they convey the message that family members can have it all-both
the room to pursue their own individual activities (in solitude, not with
other people), and the incentive to join with one another in common pur-
suits. "Rancho Bernardo. . . . Room to be together and places to be alone.
Time to really get to know your kids" (San Diego Union, May 13, 1973:F13).
"Family warmth and tradition begin at Cimarron. . . . There is plenty of
space for a variety of interests while still retaining the unity of family in-
volvement, in junior's studies, in mom's projects, in dad's work" (San Diego
Union, May 11, 1986:F11).
Of course, during this 30-year period, various changes can be seen.
For instance, by the end of the 1960s, ads stopped mentioning develop-
ments' proximity to churches. In the mid-1970s, gated communities begin
to make an appearance. Perhaps most prominently, this period sees the
growth of suburban retirement and adults-only communities, as well as con-
dominium developments [the latter of which are notoriously difficult to sell
to families with children (Daniels, 1976:F1)]. Yet these changes do not di-
minish the importance of the family for selling the suburban ideal. In fact,

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Family Togetherness 405

what is striking about these ads is what could be called the gratuitous use
of the word "family." This term is frequently sprinkled throughout the ads
for suburban developments, so that "family-sized" is a euphemism for
"large," features are designed to please "you and your family," and com-
munities are not just populated by nice people, but by nice families. The
underlying message is clearly that children are welcome and will thrive here.
These ads are employing the concept of the family to sell homes, and in
the process, they are selling an image of the suburban ideal. The continuing
use of these devices by advertisers indicates that the suburban ideal remains
firmly connected to notions of domesticity.


The suburban ideal does not simply exist in its residents' imaginations.
In many ways, suburbia's social space actually concretizes this ideal. While
analysts are not in complete agreement, it appears that to a large degree,
suburbia isolates families, and consequently promotes togetherness. This
happens in two senses: suburban families are isolated from different classes
and races, and the individual family is isolated from everyone else. Of
course, this is not to say that the suburban family has no outside social
life, or that nonwhites cannot be found in the suburbs, or that the middle-
class urban family does not also try to achieve some form of familial soli-
tude. But there are particular aspects of the suburban environment that
make the family's isolation effortless.

Supports for Suburbia

It is important to recognize that both the suburban ideal and the re-
ality of suburban life are not simply, or even primarily, creations of the
people who move to the suburbs. Other governmental and private groups
have been crucial for promoting and realizing the suburban dream. A num-
ber of governmental policies, beginning during World War I, encouraged
the middle class to buy suburban, single-family dwellings. In recent decades,
these have included tax policies that reward new construction over improve-
ment of existing buildings, and that allow mortgage interest and property
taxes to be deducted from gross income, but that do not provide compa-
rable deductions for renters (Jackson, 1985:191). Of vital importance for
the postwar suburban boom was the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) and
Veterans Administration, which insured mortgage loans and established na-
tional standards for construction (1985:204). FHA policies favored the sub-

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406 Miller

urban pattern as they set unfavorablelending terms for multifamilypro-

jects, favoredthe purchaseof new homes over the repairof existingones,
and created a system for ratingprospectivehome buyers,properties,and
neighborhoods.The criteriaused for ratingneighborhoodswas especially
significantas it led to the "red lining"of older, urban,low-income,and
nonwhite areas (1985:206-207). Consequently,urban families saw their
propertyvalues decline, while those buying homes found loans easier to
obtain if they purchasedin the suburbs.Equallyimportantfor promoting
suburbandecentralizationwere the massive,federallysponsoredhighway
buildingprojects,and the simultaneousremovalof governmentsupportfor
public transitsystems(1985:170).
Jackson points out that "suburbanization was an ideal government
policy because it met the needs of both citizens and businessinterestsand
because it earned the politicians'votes" (1985:216). While citizens re-
sponded enthusiasticallyto the chance to purchasesuburbanhomes, busi-
ness interestswere activeparticipantsin furtheringsuburbandevelopment.
Most obviously, suburbanizationbenefits land speculatorsand builders.
This is clearlyseen with the "transittycoons"of the late 19th centurywho
built railwaysand streetcarsnear their large landholdings,which then be-
came prime real estate (1985:20).It is also seen with major developers,
like the Levitt family,who perfectedthe art of mass-producedhousingfol-
lowing WorldWarII.
But the suburbanlifestyle has also been promotedby marketersof
consumergoods who, by the 1920s,made the theme of "the Americanfam-
ily at home" paramountin their sales pitches (Ascher, 1987:50).All kinds
of consumptionopportunitieswere opened up when the familymoved into
its own spacioussuburbanhouse. In fact, buildingconstructionand the pro-
duction of automobilesand domesticapplianceswere so importantto the
post WorldWarII economicboom that Hodgsonspeaksof the "suburban-

Suburban Segregation

One well-discussed consequence of these various incentives to go sub-

urban has been the ability of people to distance themselves from different
classes and races. Of course, as the suburbs come to claim nearly a majority
of all Americans, they are also now host to a wider range of people than
ever before. No longer merely the outpost of white, middle-classhome-
owners,suburbiahas its measureof low-incomefamilies,apartmentdwell-
ers, singleslivingalone, gay couples,and people of all races and ethnicities.
Yet a comparison of suburban and central city populations shows that in

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Family Togetherness 407

relative terms, the former is still the home of the privileged. As is common
knowledge, the middle class has left the city in droves.
Data from the 1990 census present a mixed picture of racial integra-
tion in the suburbs. The results show that in 1990, the suburbs were 82.4%
non-Hispanic white, down from 86.9% in 1980. Blacks in 1990 made up
6.7% of the suburbs; Hispanics, 7.5%; and Asians and other groups, 3.4%.
However, the proportion of whites in the central city declined by an even
greater amount: this figure was 59% in 1990, down from 64.7% in 1980.
In 1990, blacks made up 21.4% of the central city population; Hispanics,
14.8%; and Asians and others, 4.8% (Frey, 1992:10).
While these figures may lead one to believe the suburb (if not the
city) is gradually becoming more integrated, one observation by Frey sug-
gests otherwise. White flight is not only a phenomenon whereby whites
leave the central city for the surrounding suburbs. As nonwhites increase
their numbers in the suburbs, whites are actually leaving the suburbs of
one metropolitan area for the suburbs of other metropolitan areas that have
fewer people of color (1992:12). Other researchers have also found con-
tinued racial segregation by suburb, especially for African Americans (Alba
and Logan, 1993; Massey and Denton, 1988).8 Thus, it appears that social
homogeneity continues as an important element in the suburban ideal of
the white population (and perhaps for other ethnic groups as well).9
What has developed in many places is a hierarchy of suburbs (see
Logan, 1978) whereby the most privileged settle in the outlying suburbs,
and those with fewer resources remain in the inner circle. This latter popu-
lation now watches as their communities develop urban congestion and
other urban problems, yet they are without the urban infrastructure to help
them cope. The reality of life in these suburbs is becoming ever more distant
from the ideal.
The long-standing desire of suburbanites to segregate themselves from
the lower classes and people of different ethnicities and races is a mixture
of racism, economic calculation, the hope for a community of like-minded
people, and the attempt to find an environment good for family life. White
suburbanites are keenly aware that both nonwhites and people who do not
keep up a general appearance of affluence in the neighborhood lower prop-
erty values for all-and by acting on these beliefs, they help perpetuate
that reality. The suburbanite also hopes that by bringing together similar

8Suburbs with large numbers of African Americans tend to be older, closer to the central
city, more densely populated, and of a lower socioeconomic status than suburbs dominated
by whites (summarized in Massey and Denton, 1988:593).
9For a journalist's account of middle-class African Americans developing their own suburbs,
see Dent (1992). Alba and Logan, however, are skeptical that voluntarism can fully account
for the presence of suburbs that are disproportionately black (1993:1423).

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408 Miller

kinds of people, conflict among neighbors can be reduced, and everyone

will feel more comfortable (Bellah et al., 1986:180; Clark, 1986:183). Sub-
urbanites are trying to create, in Bellah et al.'s terms, a lifestyle enclave,
in which the socially similar, who know one another by their private leisure
lives, can forget about those who are both different from them and might
make demands on them. In such enclaves, families can leave behind re-
sponsibilities of work, politics, and solving social discord. But this entails
vigilance and precautions, as the outside world constantly threatens to
break in. Perhaps the ultimate attempt to build this kind of enclave is the
growing phenomenon of gated communities. These enclaves have gained
attention for homeowners' associations that specify everything from what
colors residents can paint their houses to whether they can park cars in
their driveways. These enclaves are also notable for their guards who check
the identities of all who wish to enter. The community thus enforces its
standards of behavior and admittance, guaranteeing protection to the fami-
lies within.
Such familial protection is key to understanding suburban segregation.
Much of the rationale for avoiding the city and all that goes with it has
been couched in terms of finding the right place in which to raise children.
In the name of protecting the children, efforts, such as the use of armed
gates, are made to prevent seemingly dangerous groups from entering the
suburban refuge. Another effective measure to keep suburbs inaccessible
has been the refusal by some communities (for instance, in the San Fran-
cisco Bay Area) to allow public transportation systems to extend to their
borders. The suburb's geography also discourages its members from leaving.
When exposure to those who are different is minimized, family members
are perhaps less likely to embrace ways of thinking and acting that are
alien from the family's own. Instead, suburban families are left to the pri-
vacy of their homes.

Private Homes and Public Spaces

The rise of women's participation in the paid labor force means that
the majority of women, like their husbands, leave the house each work day
to spend time in the public realm. But since so many Americans consider
their "real" lives to begin at the time they leave the job, these after-hours
take on enhanced importance. For most people, most of those hours are
being spent at home or out with family. Even in the indulgent 1980s, this
trend appeared to be increasing. A 1985 Use of Time study found that,
compared to 20 years earlier, Americans were spending a greater propor-
tion of their social time with immediate family, and less with friends and

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Family Togetherness 409

neighbors (Robinson, 1990:39). Suburban space encourages this pattern in

a number of ways.
Undoubtedly, the modem, relatively spacious suburban home is more
commodious and inviting than the typically cramped apartment or urban
house. While various home improvements have over the years enhanced
the comfort level of most dwellings, suburbia has been a leader in this
movement. Seemingly simple innovations, such as window screens (intro-
duced in the late 1880s), turned the indoors into a much less oppressive
place. More recently, the diffusion of air conditioning has left the house
generally more comfortable than the outdoors, even in the summertime,
so that people are content to stay in (Jackson, 1985:280-281). Furthermore,
the house is now outfitted with all sorts of entertainment gadgets that
promise to occupy and amuse family members in their leisure hours. These
range from the backyard, where the family can barbecue, sunbathe, play
ball, or maybe swim together, to the stereo, VCR, and most important, the
Suburban homes are not just the sites of leisure though. They are
investments, and as such, they require homeowners to maintain, and pref-
erably improve, the property. The house thus not only increases the scope
of recreation, but it restricts it as well, since large amounts of time must
be spent mowing the lawn, gardening, painting, remodeling, etc. This at-
tentiveness to property values may help limit social contact, as mowing the
lawn keeps the family home on Sundays. But the family stays home for
other reasons as well. An orientation to family and home arises in part
simply because there is nowhere else to go.
One of the most important features of the suburb is its lack of public
space that might bring nonrelated people into frequent contact. Not only
do suburbs have relatively few cafes, taverns, central plazas, or similar kinds
of spots, but there may even be social incentives not to use those public
spaces that are available, such as sidewalks or parks. The consequence is
that there are not many regular opportunities for contact between friends
or acquaintances.
Among the most important developments in deemphasizing the cen-
trality of the local neighborhood was the invention and ever-increasing pri-
macy of the automobile. The automobile played a crucial role in helping
to destroy public life. This is not only because it allowed residential zones
to be situated far from commercial areas, but also because it virtually did
away with the sidewalk and street as sites where people would spontane-
ously congregate. Children may continue to play on suburban streets, but
teenagers and adults no longer find much of interest there.
The automobile takes people off the streets, and it makes the streets
dirtier, noisier, and more dangerous for pedestrians. The car's flexibility

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410 Miller

also increases the options for destinations, allowing people to travel further
and to previously inaccessible spots. While the car increases spontaneity,
as people can go out whenever they please, without concern for weather
or public transportation schedules, it also makes traveling more deliberate
as one almost always must have a destination in mind. In contrast, when
on foot, and when the neighborhood is the scene, one can wander about
looking for friends and entertainment. In cars, people do not meet each
other by chance.
Suburbs, most of which were built after the first decade of the 20th
century, have generally been designed for the automobile. Consequently,
suburbs are characterized by extreme decentralization, with homes sepa-
rated from commercial enterprises by large distances. Indeed, services fre-
quently must be sought in entirely different towns. But proximity is not the
only factor that limits people's use of public space. Social conventions are
also important. Obviously there is great variation between suburbs. But in
many communities, suburbanites pride themselves on their respect for their
neighbors' privacy. For example, in the New York City suburb studied by
Baumgartner, people who use streets, parks, or other public places more
than usual, especially for socializing, are considered deviant (1988:101-103).
Halle also found that many suburbanites would rarely congregate idly on
the streets, or even in front of their own homes, viewing such behavior as
socially inappropriate (1993:45).
In several different ways, then, the geography of the suburbs interacts
with and intensifies a culture of individualism and familism. Aries argues
that the cult of privacy, aided by the automobile and the television, has
caused suburbanization and the vanishing of social intercourse in the city.
As this occurred, he claims, "the whole of social life was absorbed by pri-
vate, family living" (1977:233-234). In this conception, the denigration of
public space and the bourgeois attraction to privacy and domesticity are
mutually reinforcing processes. The modern family, exemplified by the sub-
urbanites, manages to achieve profound isolation when away from job and
school. The trade-off for this isolation is supposedly greater family togeth-


The suburban ideal and the geography of the suburbs have attempted
to promote a way of life that builds closer, happier, more stable families.
In large part, this is done by encouraging family members to spend their
free time with one another, and less time, or at least not as meaningful
time, with others. Many analysts have argued that a large portion of Ameri-

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FamilyTogetherness 411

cans simply prefer the pleasures of familial intimacy, and deliberately

choose an environmentthat will nurturethis way of life (see, e.g., Cowan,
1983:149;Gans, 1982).If this desire is taken as a given,then it makessense
to assume that people will tend to seek the suburbanlifestyle.But such a
propositionneeds to be made more problematic.Surely,Americanshave
shown some preferencefor privacy.But to maintainthat this is a pure ex-
pression of internalurges ignores how this preferencemay be shaped by
social forces.
More specifically,the ideal of togethernessdeserves closer scrutiny.
The family ideal that suburbiaembodies contributesto what Lasch calls
the "emotionaloverloading"of the family(1986:534).10 The originsof this
kind of family have been outlined by scholars such as Hareven (1986),
Laslett (1978), and Ogburn(1962). They show how the premodernfamily's
economic, status-giving,educational, religious, and protective functions
were transferredto other institutions.The decline of the household as
workplaceand social center then led to "an exaggeratedemphasison emo-
tional nurture,intimacy,and privacyas the majorjustificationfor family
relations"(Hareven,1986:49).But the ties of sentiment,while of great im-
portanceto familymembers,do not compareto economicinterdependence
and preparationfor life in the communityin their abilityto hold people
Furthermore,as Harevenand otherssuggest(e.g., Aries, 1977;Barrett
and McIntosh,1991), the familyby itself is not reallycapableof satisfying
all the social needs of the individual.In the isolated family,not only are
individualsasking one another to be their primary,if not exclusivecom-
panions, informaltherapists,and providersof affection,but they are also
makingsuchdemandson the dissimilar-on spousesand childrenwho bring
age- and gender-baseddifferencesin experiencesand interests. Still, the
heightened expectations for the family'sability to provide affection and
emotional sustenancelead other types of sociabilityto be defined as sec-
ond-rate substitutes.As opportunitiesfor nonfamilialsociabilitybecome
scarce, the family'sresponsibilityfor providingcompanionshipgrows even
greater.So when the familycannot make good on its promise,all its mem-
bers can do is hope to join a new and better familialunit.
There are numeroussigns that the Americanfamily,even in the sub-
urbs,is not havingsuch a greattime together,and maybe feeling the effects
of emotional overload.While the suburbanlifestyleis surelynot the main
cause of familydiscord,suburbanization, by workingso well, may actually
'OHowever, Laschthinksthis only describesthe (now defunct)bourgeoisfamily,and is critical
of the literaturethat assumesthe contemporaryfamilyis markedby privatismand isolation
(1979: 141-157).

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412 Miller

contribute to undermining the goal of familial harmony that has been so

much of its raison d'etre.

Signs of Stress

Undoubtedly the suburb helps push people into the home. But there
are many indications that what occurs indoors does not exactly match the
expectations of family togetherness. To begin with, many observers of the
suburbs, as well as the people they study, assume that home-centered lei-
sure is equivalent to family leisure. Yet the stress on privacy that places a
boundary between family and others also serves to separate family members
from each other. For instance, in the suburb studied by Baumgartner, much
of the time inside the house was spent alone in private bedrooms. Addi-
tionally, in this affluent town where homes were relatively large, there were
enough communal rooms so that family members could spread out without
having to share space. Corresponding to this, Baumgartner says, family
members avoided sharing personal possessions, preferring to accumulate
their own clothes, cars, telephone numbers, etc. (1988:61). These individu-
als deliberately try to minimize their contact and cooperation.
Furthermore, as both Halle (1984) and Perin (1988) point out (while
not making the home/family distinction themselves), much suburban leisure,
especially for men, is centered on home-improvement projects. Although
this may be oriented toward improving the quality of life for the family
(though most probably the primary aim is to improve property values), it
does not mean that family members are engaged in the same pursuits. In
contrast, women spend a good deal of their time away from paid jobs doing
housework. The "technological systems" of the suburban home were cre-
ated with the assumption that someone would be on the premises to run
them. Appliances such as the washer and dryer, or children who must be
chauffeured to various destinations, demand a considerable amount of time.
Even as women have entered the paid labor force, they continue to be
responsible for the bulk of these tasks (Cowan, 1983:212; Hochschild, 1989;
Shelton, 1992). The domestic division of labor thus continues to separate
men and women.
But when all the cleaning and fixing up is finished, families still try
to relax. Without question, the major chunk of Americans' leisure time is
spent watching television. A 1985 study found that TV took up 38% of
Americans' free time (Robinson, 1990:39). Watching television together
may promote a shared worldview, but it is debatable whether it promotes
much interaction. Furthermore, while some of this time is undoubtedly
spent in the company of other family members, probably a significant pro-

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Family Togetherness 413

portion is not. Not only do children view when parents are absent, but as
the number of television sets per household grows, individual family mem-
bers can retreat to separate rooms to watch what they like. Television, the
VCR, and now the personal computer may keep the family housebound,
but they hardly facilitate meaningful family connections.
In addition to family members going their own ways, the large amount
of divorce, domestic violence, child abuse, and talk of "dysfunctional" fami-
lies demonstrates that the family often does not resemble a tranquil and
supportive haven. Such domestic pathologies are of course not new, and
the publicity they receive is as much a product of political circumstances
as their actual frequency in the population (see Gordon, 1988). Moreover,
these problems do not respect class or geographic boundaries. But their
persistence raises questions about whether the family, in its present form
and social circumstances, is the most reliable provider of support and com-
On one level, suburbia may increase familial tension by contributing
to the "time squeeze" faced by many Americans. According to Schor, the
amount of leisure time available to Americans has been shrinking since the
late 1960s. Suburban life may add to this problem in a couple ways. For
many workers, once a house has been acquired, overtime or an extra job
may be necessary to meet the monthly payments (1991:63). In addition, as
people move to ever more distant environs in order to be able to afford a
home, commuting time goes up. Schor claims that travel time to and from
work has been rising since 1975, adding an average of 23 hours a year
(1991:33). As people work longer hours, have fewer days off, or work more
than one job, they have less time to divide between the obligations of family
togetherness and other possibilities for social contact. Additionally, as Schor
suggests, work may leave them too tired to do much else other than watch
TV (1991:161).
Suburbia also adds to familial tension in that not all family members
benefit equally from suburban living. The differences between responsibility
for housework indicates one way in which the man's suburban refuge can
become the woman's endless series of rooms to clean. Furthermore, it ap-
pears that for teenagers, suburbia can be something of a disaster. While
they are less likely than their inner-city counterparts to worry about dodging
bullets between home and school, they frequently suffer boredom and frus-
tration from a lack of recreational facilities and gathering places (Gaines,
1991; Gans, 1982; Oldenburg, 1989). Suburban adolescents, defiant in their
support of ties with peers, and perennially looking for something to do,
may provide some of the most glaring evidence that family togetherness is
on shaky ground.

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414 Miller


The realityof suburbanlife does not appearto completelymatchthe

ideal of suburbanfamilytogetherness.Indeed, those structuralfeatures of
the suburbanenvironmentdesignedto promote togethernessmay actually
be exacerbatingthe problemsfelt by all Americanfamilieswho try to live
up to this vision of family life. Therefore,it may be useful to speculate
about how public sociabilitycan actuallyaid familialharmony,for it is not
alwaysthe case that domesticand nonfamilialsociabilityneed be rivals(see
Wellmanand Wellman,1992;Youngand Willmott,1962:104).Publicsocia-
bilitymay providethe companythat makesbeingwith familymemberseas-
ier. This can happen first of all, by reducingthe claustrophobiaof family
togetherness.When it is assumedthat some emotionaland companionship
needs will be met by others, expectationsfor the familyare lowered, and
it is less likely to disappoint.
Furthermore,publicspacesnot only facilitatecontactwith others,but
they also providesites where differentages and genderscan mingleso that
people can be with their peers and with their families at the same time.
These spaces offer opportunitiesfor the family to share common experi-
ences, even though the socializingthat occurs there may be with one's
peers. For instance,the churchesand countryclubs that many early sub-
urbanplannerstried to includeservedthis function,as a decliningnumber
of regularparticipantsfind out now. In a sense, these sites can give the
illusionof familytogetherness,since parentsand childrenare in one loca-
tion but are often involvedin separateactivitieswith their own peers. Such
possibilitiessuggest directionsfor future research.
In the currentdebates over the state of the family,some may argue
that Americanshave grown thoroughlycynical and no longer accept the
sentiments behind family togetherness.Others maintain that Americans
now engage in a multiplicityof family forms, dependingon an extended
networkof related and nonrelated"kin"for social and emotionalsupport
(Stacey, 1990:252).But as recent election campaignsshow so well, there is
enormoussupportfor a modifiedversionof familytogetherness.While di-
vorce may be an acceptedway of life, there remainsthe sense that the ties
that reallymatterare with one's immediatefamilyof origin and marriage.
Bonds between spouses (even if the partnerchangesmidwaythroughlife),
parents,and children-not neighborsor co-workers-are what people hope
to see strengthened(Coontz, 1992).Even with the rise of women'spartici-
pation in the paid labor force, the home and the affectionfreely given by
family membersare still seen as providingrefuge from an untrustworthy
outside world.The suburbcontinuesto play an importantrole in this ide-
alized image of the family.

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Family Togetherness 415

As I have argued, the suburban ideal of family togetherness has long

been buttressed by government policies, commercial interests, and the very
architecture of the suburban landscape. The premise behind this ideal is
that a physical and mental split between public life and private life, between
work and residence, between different classes and races, and between the
family and others provides the best opportunity for personal happiness and
fulfillment. The suburbs hold out the possibility of escape from a messy
and chaotic social world into pure and tranquil nature-to a place where
socioeconomic differences are hidden away, not just in the next neighbor-
hood, but often in the next town. In the suburbs where there are fewer
distractions for family members who otherwise could be drawn to nonfa-
milial influences, and where public spaces are discredited and private
houses are glamorized, the conditions for a focus on family interaction are
formally established. But in the end, the ideal itself may be unrealizable.
Not only are suburbanites excused from learning how to live with those of
different classes and races, they are also expected to narrow their social
ties to boundaries set by their property lines, and to look to a few people,
dissimilar in age and gender, to meet most of their emotional and com-
panionship needs. It is questionable whether this impoverishment of other
social relationships will result in either social or familial harmony.
For close to two centuries, the suburbs have promised middle-class
Americans both economic security and the possibility of splendid isola-
tion-from social problems, from threatening populations, and from com-
peting influences on the family's affections. The suburbs neither create the
ideal of family togetherness nor the isolated family, but they do intensify
this pattern by providing both attractive homes and few other convenient
opportunities for socializing. However, the suburbs are not entirely working
as designed. Outsiders creep in, women abandon the home during the day,
and soothing nature disappears when development becomes more profit-
able. Furthermore, despite residents' valiant struggles to make a good fam-
ily life, dissatisfactions remain. Middle-class suburbanites certainly seem to
love their privacy. But that privacy, nurtured at the expense of work rela-
tions and public institutions, also subverts their hopes, while giving strength
to and hiding the tensions behind the closed doors of their homes.


I would like to thank Sharon Hays, George Lipsitz, and Chandra

Mukerji for their suggestions and comments during the development of this

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416 Miller


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